Posts Tagged coaching
By Allen White
Multiplying small groups is difficult. Multiplication involves developing leaders within a group in an effort to start new groups. Some methods of multiplication involve group members leaving the group to start new groups. “Multiplication” really becomes a euphemism for division. For many groups in North America, multiplication like this is unwelcome.
Many churches I’ve coached and the two churches I served on staff have experienced multiplication efforts as subtraction. We weren’t multiplying groups. We were losing groups because no one wanted to multiply. Or, more accurately, we were losing the opportunity to multiply.
In my days of handpicking group leaders, pushing an apprentice model, and encouraging group multiplication, I faced considerable pushback. Members didn’t want to leave groups. Group leaders couldn’t identify an apprentice. I ran out of people to handpick. Our groups were stuck with only 30 percent of our congregation connected into groups. Then, out of frustration, we discovered something that worked.
1. Stop Recruiting Leaders.
I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004 (and I served a whole other church since then). How do you multiply groups without recruiting leaders? You engage the senior pastor. Whether you hand a copy of Transformation Groups to your pastor to show him how groups can solve most of your church members’ needs or create video-based curriculum with your senior pastor’s teaching, there is no better spokesperson for groups than the senior pastor.
When we created a video-based curriculum that aligned with my pastor’s message series, we were giving our people more of what they already wanted – our pastor’s teaching. When he stood up on a Sunday morning and invited people to open their homes and host a group, we doubled our groups in one day. Semantics aside, we had never seen groups multiply so fast.
Small group pastors and directors at best will recruit only 30 percent of the leaders that the senior pastor is able to recruit. How do I know? After seven years of personally making the invitation to lead, our church had only 30 percent in groups. When my senior pastor made a similar invitation, our groups jumped from 30 percent to 60 percent the first time around. Within six month, we had 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. My pastor recruited every leader from 31-125 percent.
2. Stop Coaching Leaders.
Up until the day our groups doubled, I coached all of the leaders myself. In many ways, I had become the “lid” on our small group ministry. The limited number of groups we had at that point was a true reflection of my leadership. As Andy Stanley says our system was perfectly designed to achieve the results we were getting. We were stuck because I was the bottleneck, so I stopped coaching the leaders.
Instead, I handpicked a leadership team of six coaches to help me lead the small group ministry. This felt like a risky move because things were moving so fast that I couldn’t keep up. As their pastor, I had to admit that I didn’t have it all figured out and that I needed them to figure this out with me. They were up for the challenge. We led together, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. They coached the leaders. I led the leadership team. Our groups multiplied.
3. Stop Assigning People to Groups.
There are a lot of reasons to assign people to groups. It’s efficient. It’s easy. It helps to prevent combinations of troublemakers from meeting together. It’s a pure expression of control. Yikes!
Assigning people to groups, sign up cards, websites, and group directories are all efficient ways to place people in groups, but they aren’t effective. The wheels fall off these efforts simply because these are task-oriented approaches in forming relationally-based groups. Do you see the problem?
By placing people into groups, we are setting them up on a blind date, if you will. Most people don’t enjoy blind dates. It’s awkward. It’s stressful. It rarely works out. The same is true of small group “blind dates.”
Instead, when people offer to host a new group, their first job is to recruit people to join their group. By making a list of people they know, praying over the list, and personally inviting these folks, groups filled up quickly and stayed together for a second study. Make opportunity for those who aren’t invited to a group to meet the group leaders and join a group. In a church of 800 adults, we connected 1,000 into groups without sign up cards, websites, or directories. In the churches I coach (both larger and smaller) this has proved effective in forming lasting groups.
4. Stop Training Apprentices.
We broke the rule of attempting to recruit and train one apprentice. I learned from Brett Eastman and Lifetogether to “apprentice” the entire group. Everyone chose a responsibility to host the group in their home, lead all or a portion of the study, bring refreshments, plan outreach events and parties. Potential leaders were much easier to identify when they were put into action rather than picked out of a lineup.
As groups grew, some left to start a new group. There was no mandatory splitting of groups. They just got too big for the houses they were meeting in.
Honestly, 14 years ago, I didn’t believe this would be my story. Once we implemented the principles I shared here, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to multiply groups. Now, I’ve seen this story multiplied across over 1,500 churches that I’ve had the privilege of coaching.
This could be your story.
By Allen White
Pretty curriculum boxes appear to be the new hot thing in small group ministry. Don’t get me wrong. They are nice. It looks like Christmas! This tool is a great draw for potential group leaders.
Our church did something similar back in 2004. We had overbought curriculum for the Fall series. I bought gift bags and tissue paper at the dollar store and added the curriculum. No coffee. No bookmarks. No snacks. To be honest, the tissue paper was debatable. I think we made 31 bags. Why 31? Because that’s the number of flavors at Baskin Robbins. No, we had 31 sets of curriculum left after the HOST homes were recruited.
People were invited to grab a bag, gather their friends, and start a group. Those bags went fast. In fact, we had to stop offering them after our second service. They were gone.
The dynamic of group formation had changed in our church forever. No longer were people excited about joining groups. They wanted to start their own group. (You can read more of this story in Chapter 1 of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential. Download the chapter here).
Launching dozens to hundreds to thousands of new groups is pretty easy in the first six weeks. But, once you have the low hanging fruit, things are a little more uphill from there. Now, you could continue to offer a new box or bag of curriculum every quarter. It can also seem like you’re making progress, since your numbers are up and to the right. In many cases, however, you aren’t adding groups. You’re churning them. (Read more about Disposable Groups). If only a colorful box could make a small group ministry strong.
1. Perpetual Newbie Syndrome
One of the great benefits to the group in a box is that anyone can do it. This method will create a ton of new groups in a very short period of time. I am a big fan of momentum. Get people out of their pews and into their neighborhoods. Launch an army of new small group leaders (or whatever you want to call them.) I am with you.
Groups, however, cannot live by pretty boxes alone. In a recent conversation with a pastor I first met six years ago, I was disheartened to learn that their group launches were keeping their leaders at the level of perpetual newbies. Many of the leaders had started six years ago and took a “box” every time it was offered. But, their leadership had never grown beyond the box. Now their group involvement was declining.
There is a time to delay leadership requirements and extensive training. This helps to get people who never imagined being a leader actually leading. But, there is also a time when leaders need to grow up. Requirements need to reappear. Extensive training should be offered.
If groups are only assimilating year after year after year, they become truly handicapped. What helped the groups to start will not help the groups to grow. Where are the disciples? Where are the leaders? Perpetual newbie syndrome doesn’t get the groups there.
Diapers are great when your kids are small. They’re not so great when they’re six years old.
2. Coach in a Box.
I’ve seen many small group ministries get into trouble because there is no structure to support their growth. If you launch groups well, you will very quickly overwhelm any kind of coaching structure you have (or don’t have). This was the case when we doubled our groups in one day. Our inadequate coaching structure couldn’t handle the new growth. Quite a few groups ended up unnecessarily as casualties. We simply weren’t ready for that kind of growth.
It’s easy to assume that one small group pastor or director or a small coaching team can accommodate the wave of growth that’s ahead. This does not work. If the new leaders are not supported from when first commit to leading, many of the groups will never start. The new leaders will become discouraged or overwhelmed. With no one to turn to or only a “phone a friend,” many groups will end before they’ve begun.
We all know that leading a group is as easy as inviting a few friends and providing some refreshment. We also know that it’s not that easy. Soon we discover that a few of our friends have problems. Some have needs beyond the ability of the leader. They could call the pastor, but if the leaders of your 300 new groups (or 30 or 3,000) all call the pastor, what’s your life going to be like?
Before you distribute a single box for a new group, have a coach in place for that group. It may be all hands on deck with your established leaders. A caring person who is available to coach a new leader will determine the group’s success or failure.
3. Where’s the Next Box?
If you don’t have a next step for the new groups, then don’t take a first step. When people are invited to gather their friends and do a six week study, guess what happens at the end of the six weeks? The groups end.
But, the groups don’t have to end. The key is a new pretty box that appears in the middle of the current study. If they’re new groups, don’t give them choices of what to study next. Just tell them what to study next. If they’re experienced groups, then let them go back to normal.
If you offer a next step as described above, then get the group to decide about going forward before the current study ends. Unless they decide before the end of the study, chances are the groups won’t continue.
Tying a Bow on It
I have no argument with innovative ways to get groups started. I think a group in a box is a great incentive and attraction for people starting new groups. The issue comes when there’s not a plan behind that initial start. Some churches have been perpetuating a low bar of leadership and a quick start to groups for so long that their ministries are actually dying out. What once made them great is now handicapping them. What comes after the pretty box?
By Allen White
Allen White is the author of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (releases February 1, 2017 from Hendrickson Publishers. Download the Introduction and First Chapter Here). He has worked with over 1,500 churches across North America in the last 12 years. Admittedly, interviewing one’s self is pretty odd, but I have interviewed many people sharing about their ministries and books, so why not?
Q1. What makes groups exponential?
Well, let’s start with strategies that don’t produce exponential groups. If small group pastors are focused on connecting people into groups, they will grow by addition. Prospective members must be provided with a group that they will be assigned to. If you’re doing this and your groups are growing, then you’re lucky.
Other churches focus on multiplying leaders, which usually implies dividing groups. A high quality group leader is recruited, who then mentors an apprentice, who will eventually take part of the group and start a new group. The problem I faced with this model was that my leaders weren’t able to identify apprentices for the most part. Oh, and our groups didn’t want to split.
Exponential speaks to equipping and empowering people to gather a group of their friends and do a study together. Imagine 10 people volunteering to lead, who then invite 10 of their friends to join them. Suddenly, you have 10 new groups and 110 people in groups, and all you did was give them permission, then help them. Now, 10 groups is tame. But, what if the number of groups equaled the number of people in your church? Think about the impact. That turns into some crazy math. In recent years, I’ve seen churches of 2,500 with 500 groups, and a church of 260 start 75 groups. That’s exponential.
Q2. In the first sentence of Exponential Groups, you say, “Everyone is already in a group.” How did you reach that conclusion? What if they’re not?
Think about your own life. If you made a list of your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you would quickly see you are already in a group or even multiple groups. Now, if you took these groups that people are already in and gave them an easy-to-use tool that would intentionally help them grow spiritually, then you have what we typically call a “small group.”
Years ago our congregation took a health assessment. Not only did I want to see where people were growing and where people were stalling out, but I also wanted to see the impact of small groups on their growth. The assessment was based on the five biblical purposes as expressed by Rick Warren: Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, Service, and Evangelism.
What we discovered was that everyone in our church rated themselves in this exact same order. People who were in official small groups were highest in Fellowship, but so were the people who weren’t. So, I took another survey to ask the non-small group folks who they were in fellowship with. Their responses: friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. They weren’t joining “small groups” because they were already in groups. Then the light bulb went off — what if we gave these groups a study, drew a circle around them, and called them a “group”? It worked better than we imagined.
Now, there are people who are new to the church or new to the area, who genuinely don’t know anyone. These are the exceptions. They need a little help getting connected into a group. Help them, but don’t build your entire system on the perceived needs of the exceptions.
Q3. You talk some about launching groups through church-wide campaigns. Many churches have done this only to see groups fall apart once the study is over. How is your approach different? What’s the best way to form groups that will last?
In order for groups to last beyond a church-wide campaign, three factors are crucial. First, the way the group is formed will largely determine whether the group will continue. See question #2. Second, they need a next step. Many groups don’t continue, because we didn’t ask them to. Lastly, every leader needs a coach. There’s a lot to unpack about coaching, but unless you are supporting your leaders, they will not last for the long term.
Q4. Some pastors are very cautious about lowering the bar on leadership. What would you say to them?
Don’t lower the bar on leadership. Delay the requirements.
Have you ever bought a car from a car dealer? You don’t start with all of the requirements and paperwork necessary to purchase a car. You start with a test drive. In the same way, potential leaders need to test drive small group leadership before they’re ready to seal the deal.
What’s the requirement for a test drive? A drivers license. The question you must answer is: What is the “drivers license” for a small group test drive in your church. For some, they’ll take anyone who is breathing. For others, it’s salvation, baptism, membership, an interview, and/or something else. In chapter 3 of the book, I talk about an acceptable level of risk. You must decide what your church is willing to try.
After group leaders do the test drive and decide to move forward in leading groups, then you can gently reintroduce the requirements you delayed. The end result looks a lot like what you expect from your current groups. You just have a lot more of them.
Q5. Where do you feel churches are missing it with small groups?
I believe some churches don’t think well enough of their people and assume they can’t or won’t lead. They might fear that if “anyone” can lead there will be a lot of problems. Let me assure you — there will be problems. But, the problems I’ve faced in both leading small groups at two churches and coaching other churches amount to about 2 percent of the total leaders you recruit. But, here’s the deal, you already have these problems. Small groups don’t create problems, but they can reveal the problems you already have.
The biggest mistake churches make by far is the lack of a coaching structure. This is difficult work, but it is the backbone of a lasting small group ministry. You cannot coach more than probably 30 leaders yourself. You can never hire all of the staff you need to oversee groups. But, if according to Exodus 18, you have leaders of 10s, leaders of 50s, leaders of 100s, and leaders of 1000s, you can get there. I’ve never had a small group staff. In fact, in the last church I served, we had 6,500 people, and I had one full time assistant. My leadership team was volunteer. My coaches were volunteer. The great thing is I had the privilege of working with people I could never afford to hire. Build a coaching structure or brace for impact.
Q5.5 You are a native Kansan who spent almost 20 years in California, and has now spent the last decade in South Carolina. What teams do you root for?
Well, for college basketball, it’s KU. (Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk). For college football, it’s Clemson. For MLB, it’s the San Francisco Giants. For NBA, it’s the Golden State Warriors. For NFL, I don’t care. How’s that for a mixed bag?
By Allen White
How do you know if your small groups pastor should stay or go? How do you measure success in small groups? Today, I want to give you some milestones for small groups. You might just find a new scorecard for success in your small groups.
1. You have less than 30% in groups.
It’s fairly easy to connect 30% of a church’s adults into groups (unless you have more than 70% in Sunday School). This is the low hanging fruit. Any strategy can help most churches connect at least 30% into groups. Whether you are handpicking leaders, developing apprentices and birthing groups, or launching church-wide campaigns, 30% is a pretty low threshold for connection.
In fact, most churches I’ve coached have become stuck at with 30% in groups. Few have less than 30% if they are giving small groups any effort. Determine whether your groups pastor believes your church is a cruise ship or a battle ship. Is everyone kicking back and relaxing about groups, or is it all hands on deck?
2. Your Groups Pastor spends time connecting people into groups.
Connecting individuals to groups is nearly a complete waste of time. Either the leader never contacts the prospective member, the prospect doesn’t show up, or the prospect leaves the group as soon as the study ends. Why? There is simply not enough affinity if the group only has a neighborhood or night of the week in common. This does not create lasting connection in groups.
Besides, everyone is already in a group. It’s the first sentence of my book. They have neighbors, co-workers, family members, and all kinds of people they do life with. To support unrecognized, yet existing groups is a far more effective way to grow groups. While there will be exceptions, in the wise words of Brett Eastman, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Don’t develop a whole group system to accommodate for possible exceptions.
3. You don’t have a coaching structure.
Developing a coaching structure is where your church will get the most bang for its buck. If you applied the same energy to coaching that you currently exert for recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups, you will have a far more effective small group system. Leadership support and development is the key to healthy small groups.
If you don’t have a coaching structure, then you are limited to just the handful of groups a small groups pastor can manage on his or her own. While many churches, even prominent churches, have abandoned coaching, the truth is an email distribution list or another training meeting is not an effective investment into your small group leaders. Coaching is built on a relationship. Without that relationship, groups will disappear over time.
4. Your Groups Pastor isn’t begging you to create self-produced curriculum.
The best way to connect people into groups is to start new groups. The best way to start new groups is through a church-wide launch using the Senior Pastor’s teaching in the video curriculum. Whether you hire a full production crew and invest tens of thousands of dollars or shoot the video with an iPhone, your people want more of your teaching, Pastor. After all, if they aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend your church, other than Jesus, is you. They like you. They like your teaching. They laugh at your jokes. If you give them exclusive content through small groups, you are giving more of what they already like. When you encourage them to gather their friends to do the study, that 30% connected in groups will become a small dot in the rearview mirror of your ministry.
Whether you preach in a series or preach standalone messages, there are ways to craft new sermons and even past sermons into a video-based curriculum. Some production companies even offer curriculum that’s already prepared for you — you just need to add your teaching! If your groups pastor isn’t begging for this, then you’ve missed the boat.
A Closing Thought…
There might be another reason your small groups pastor isn’t reaching his or her optimal performance — it might be you. Are you open to talking about groups from the pulpit? Have you made small groups a priority in your church? Are you willing to create curriculum? Do you see small groups as one of many ministries in the church or do you see groups are the chief way to connect, disciple, equip, train, and empower your members for ministry?
Small groups could grow your church like nothing else. What’s blocking your growth?
By Allen White
One year ago after following a nudge from the Holy Spirit, which felt move like a shove, my wife and I formed our own coaching organization. It was a big step. After working for two churches and then two stints at Lifetogether Ministries with Brett Eastman, it was time to go out on our own. And, what a year it’s been!
Exponential Groups, my first book on small groups, will be released on February 1, 2017 from Hendrickson Publishers. Writing this book was something I just felt compelled to do, even if my mom is the only one who reads it. It’s the stories and best practices from the over 1,500 churches I’ve coached and the two churches I served on staff. Why Exponential Groups? When we recruit individual leaders, we grow by addition. When we train apprentices and “birth” new groups, we grow by multiplication. When we engage our entire congregation in the Great Commission, we grow exponentially. You can preorder Exponential Groups at Christianbook.com, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online outlets. Hint: The book is $5 cheaper at Christianbook.com (my publisher owns it). (Download the first chapter Here). But, this isn’t the best part.
I have the privilege of coaching some of the great churches across North American and helping them grow their groups exponentially. Here is a partial list of churches I’ve worked with in the last 12 months in various ways.
Coaching Groups — 19 Churches including:
C4 Church, Ajax, Ontario
Christ Tabernacle, Queens, NY
Discovery Church, Orlando, FL
Eastlake Church, Chula Vista, CA
Manna Church (ARC), Fayetteville, NC
Next Level Church (ARC). Ft Myers, FL
Peninsula Covenant Church, Redwood City, CA
St. Johns Lutheran Church (LCMS), Orange, CA
The Branch Church (COC), Dallas, TX
Victory Worship Church (AG), Tuscon, AZ
Ward Church (EPC), Northville, MI
Bayside Community Church (ARC), Bradenton-Sarasota, FL
LifeBridge Christian Church (ICC), Longmont, CO
St. Matthew Catholic Church, Charlotte, NC
Allison Park Church (AG), Pittsburg, PA
Bethesda Pentecostal Church, St. Johns, Newfoundland
Mariners Church, Huntington Beach, CA
The Rooted Network, Mariners Church, Irvine, CA
Venture Church, Los Gatos, CA
Online Courses including:
Love of Christ Church (ARC), Bear, DE
Overlake Christian Church, Redmond, WA
Salem Lutheran Church (LCMS), Tomball, TX
The Life Church, San Angelo, TX
Thousand Hills Church (AG), Corinth, TX (Leader Retreat)
Georgia District Council (AG), Macon, GA (Pastors’ Conference)
Chip Ingram and Living on the Edge (multiple projects)
Doug Fields and Intentional Parenting (Discussion Guide)
Lutheran Church of the Atonement (ECLA), Barrington, IL
Kingdom Life Church, Baltimore, MD
Wow, when I stop and look at the list, I realize it truly has been an amazing first year. I also serve churches in some low cost ways:
My Blog: allenwhite.org
We’ve had a great first year and have seen great progress in the churches we have served. My hope in the coming year is not only to help more churches grow their small groups, but also to help more churches grow their people. In the Great Commission, Jesus charges every believer with the responsibility to “Go and make disciples…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The word we are keying in on for 2017 is “obey.” Jesus didn’t tell his disciples (including us) to “teach them…everything.” He commanded us to “teach them to obey everything.” An obedient church is a growing churches. Priorities will change. Chains will fall off. Communities will be transformed. Believes will be empowered. New leaders will come out of the woodwork. Without building another building or hiring another staff member, we can change the world.
Thanks to all of you who’ve allowed me to play in your sandbox and have taken this work seriously. You and your church will never be the same.
By Allen White
My guest today is Alan Danielson, the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.
Q1: You’re not new at small groups. Over the years, what trends/methods/strategies in forming groups have stood the test of time?
Oh boy, I have several things that come to mind. The first and most obvious answer is leadership. Every group that lasts needs a leader. There are “leaderless” methods for starting groups but these groups only last long-term when someone in the group demonstrates leadership. They may never actually give someone the title of leader, but make no mistake a truly “leaderless” group won’t be a group for long.
The second thing that pops into my head is coaching. I’m a huge believer in small group coaches. I’ve heard lots of people claim that coaching doesn’t work, but that has certainly not been my experience. By providing coaches to connect with and guide my small group leaders, I’ve given them all a lifeline and a partner. I once asked my friend Dave Treat why some people are down on small group coaching when it has proven to be so important to me. He said, “Coaching works, but people are lazy.” What that means is that coaching is hard work and it only works if pastors and other leaders will put in the effort needed.
Thirdly, I think of church wide small group campaigns. Campaigns are such a simple tool for launching new groups and getting new people connected. If a campaign is followed up by capable small group coaches, the new groups can last a long time and provide a great platform for discipleship.
Q2: When you think about methods like church-wide campaigns and other ways of rapidly forming groups, do you see these srategies going the long haul? Why or why not?
I’ve seen both. I’ve seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected only to see those groups fizzle out after a few months.
I’ve also seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected and then see the groups last and build tremendous relationships that change lives.
So what’s the difference? The first two things I talked about after your first question: leadership and coaching. At some point someone in the group has to take up the mantle of leader (whether they want the title or not). The perfect person to guide the would-be leader through that process is a small group coach. A well-trained coach can help people make the transition into leadership well. Without leaders and coaches, small groups quickly implode, collapse, dissolve or just fade away.
Q3: You’ve served as a small group champion as both a small group pastor and a senior pastor. Where have you been the most effective in group ministry? What made it more effective?
Well, it depends on what you call effective. When I was a campus small group pastor at Life.Church we developed 544 groups on a campus of 7,000 people. 544 groups sounds really impressive, but I was never impressed. We averaged 8.45 people per group which translated 4,597 people connected. That still sounds like a lot. But when compared to our campus attendance of 7,000 it meant that just under 66% of our weekend attenders were in groups. In school 66% is a D.
When I was promoted to executive groups pastor over all of our campuses we got to nearly 1,100 groups total for all of our campuses. That came out to 9,295 people in groups. At the time we were running 28,000 on all campuses meaning we had 33% of our total attendance in groups. That’s an F.
Now I’m the lead pastor of a church of 300 and we have about 80% of our people in groups. That’s much better.
What made the difference in these three different settings? Leadership and coaching. On the one campus where I led the small group ministry, coaching was a critical component. When I was given charge of all 13 campuses, we were in the middle of implementing our coaching ministry on all campuses. If I’d stayed there longer I believe we would have broken the 66% mark and gone even further.
Here’s the big takeaway: small groups and coaching work in all churches of all size. Success is determined not by the slickness of the strategy but by the break-neck-work-ethic of every leader involved (from the pastor to the group leader) and high value of small groups in the church. My current church will one day hit, and I believe exceed, the 100% mark because, as the lead pastor, I am committed to our strategy. Then I hire staff who share that commitment, who recruit coaches who share that commitment, who train leaders who share that commitment.
Q4: What is different about Group Life in Oklahoma than in other places?
The Food! When I was a pastor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you could be sure that every small group had some form of green chile every week. In Oklahoma there are lots of veggie trays, followed by some kind of meat and dessert.
Seriously though, I don’t really think there’s much difference. People are people everywhere you go. As I’ve consulted with churches all across the country I’ve noticed that people crave connection everywhere. Every neighborhood needs groups who will care for the neighborhood. Every person in every church needs healthy relationships and needs to grow spiritually. The biggest difference is simply one of awareness. In the Oklahoma (often called the buckle of the Bible Belt), more people in the culture are aware of small groups or Bible study groups. In Portland, Oregon the average person hasn’t heard of such a thing.
Q5: When we first met, you were the small groups pastor at LifeChurch.tv (now Life.Church). What did you small group structure look like across multiple campuses? Were groups consistent across campuses or did that matter?
The goal was to have a consistent group strategy and structure on all campuses. It was to be built on three basic building-blocks: leaders, coaches and campaigns. We did two campaigns every year, so we needed coaches on every campus who would develop great leaders in a very short time. That’s a pretty over-simplified summary, but I think you get the gist.
Anyway, when I became the point person overseeing groups on all campuses, the group ministries did not have a very consistent look. My predecessor had encouraged lots of experimentation on every campus, so there were definitely differences from one campus to the next. These differences were both good and bad. The good thing was that each of our 13 campuses was a laboratory where we could try different strategies and tactics. The bad thing was the tendency of the campus groups pastors becoming too attached to their own way of doing things. This led to quite a bit of tension.
Okay, before I continue I have to give you a little more context. What I’m saying may sound like I’m running down Life.Chruch, but that’s most definitely NOT my intent. Remember, when I was at Life.Church, the multi-site movement was still very new. In many ways we were making things up as we went along. We quickly became the biggest multi-site church in the country and had few examples to learn from, so we made a TON of mistakes. That’s why I’m very comfortable sharing that we got an “F” for only 33% of our people in groups. But in this case and “F” is not automatically a failure. We didn’t necessarily view each experiment as “success” or “failure”, but as an “opportunity to learn”. Even things that didn’t pan out like we’d hoped taught us a lot.
So through all of this I learned that the most important part of leading multi-site small group ministry came down to the campus small group pastor. If the campus small group pastor was a teachable, team-player, he/she was far more likely to utilize the basics that we wanted to implement on each campus (the basics being the things I mentioned earlier: leaders, coaches and campaigns). The independent-type campus group pastors had a tendency to try to blaze their own trails. Rather than building upon something proven effective, they often tried to start building from a new foundation. This often led to slower success. Under my leadership, the ideal personality-mix for a campus group pastor was a creative person who is willing to learn from and follow their leadership. Rather than being trail blazers (or sometimes even rebels), these types of campus group pastors implemented the basics and experimented with ideas only if they would enhance or improve the basics.
Q5.5: As the co-owner of the second largest Star Wars fan site in the world, what is your favorite Star Wars movie?
It’s episode V, The Empire Strikes Back!
When you think about connecting a congregation into community or taking a crowd and turning them into disciples, the task can be quite mindboggling. Sometimes in contemplating the enormity of the task, we expend a lot of energy on things that are either not great investments of our time or are things other people should be doing. There is only so much of any small group pastor or director. Knowing where to apply your efforts will determine your success and possibly your sanity.
I tend to learn best in the school of hard knocks. Please understand while I believe all of my efforts have been well intentioned, I have made quite a number of well intentioned mistakes along the way. The good news is I have learned or am learning from most of those failed attempts, and I am now passing these painful lessons on to you.
Every small group pastor, including myself, who considers how to connect a congregation into community, typically starts with the wrong questions, which lead to the wrong strategies, which ends up with poor results. It typically goes like this:
1. How do I connect people into groups?
This is question comes from the assumption that most people file in and out of church never talking to anybody and have no real friends outside of church. People are far more connected than you might imagine. In fact, I would go so far as to say your people are already in multiple groups. The question is: how are those groups helping them to grow spiritually? What are they doing to intentionally grow in their faith?
The reality is most people don’t have time for a small group and lack the capacity to maintain any more relationships. Now, before you quit your job, there’s a solution. Think about how people can leverage their existing connections to grow spiritually. Could you create an easy to use curriculum available for them to discuss spiritual things with their friends at dinner or their co-workers at lunch? The dilemma is not placing people into groups, but introducing a spiritual growth component to the groups they are already in.
If you feel your main task is to place people into groups via some dreaded system like a sign up card, trust me, you need to get out of that business ASAP. Yes, there are some exceptions to what I described above, but as Brett Eastman would say, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” If you build your entire system around the needs of exceptions, you will devote 90% of your energy to less than 5% of your people. For more ideas on how to connect people who are new to your church and who have truly no friends, click here.
2. How do I recruit group leaders?
You don’t. If your senior pastor is willing to create small group curriculum based on his teaching, then he will volunteer to recruit group leaders for you. You may be thinking, “That will never work in my church.” Let me ask you a question, “Has your senior pastor ever created his own curriculum?” Once a pastor has invested his time and energy in producing a small group curriculum, he won’t want to see that investment go to waste.
In just a few short weeks, your pastor can get half or more of your congregation into a study based on his teaching. All he has to do is ask. He will want to ask because he now has skin in the game. I’ve seen this happen in a church of 50 people, churches of tens of thousands of people, and both of the churches I have served on staff.
Small group pastors don’t need to recruit small group leaders. Your senior pastor will take care of this (and get a far better result).
3. How do I support and encourage small group leaders?
This is the right question. The real work of a small group pastor is to implement the systems and strategies to sustain groups over time (Wow, that really sounds like Brett Eastman). When I coach small group pastors in how to launch a church-wide series, the first task is to identify experienced group leaders and mature believers who will serve as a small group team for the first teaching series. Imagine if you suddenly had half or better of your congregation in groups, how would you manage the needs of those leaders?
Sure you could send a few email blasts or have your assistant call them, but the key to developing groups which will continue is a coaching structure to support them. This is a decentralized, one-on-one strategy. It’s the opposite of on-campus training meetings or robocalls. There is a place for training meetings. There is no place for robocalls. Everybody hates telemarketers…everybody. (I actually was a telemarketer for three days once. It was hard to live with myself for those 72 hours).
The hard work of small group ministry lies here. If you skip this step, then you will experience a short-lived, one-time success and then it will devolve into a number of leaders you can personally manage. Again, I’ve lived it. I’ve been there.
This is not a reason to become overwhelmed. This is a reason to pray. God knows what He wants to accomplish in your church during your upcoming launch. God also knows every person who can help you successfully start and sustain groups. If you ask God to direct you to the right small group team, pay attention to who crosses your path. God will answer your prayer. He’s certainly answered mine.
A debate runs between small group pastors and sometimes senior pastors about whether to keep small group attendance and why. While it can be difficult at times to get relational small group leaders to accomplish the task of keeping group attendance, here are some benefits to taking weekly group attendance.
Alerts You to Major Shifts
Groups who typically have 80 percent or more of their group members in a meeting on a regular basis are in their sweet spot. Even if their attendance occasionally dips below 50 percent, there really is not much to worry about.
But, there are two situations where you or your small group coaches need to intervene:
- Groups with Too Many Members
Warm, welcoming groups can’t help but to grow. The members keep inviting their friends and in a matter of days to weeks, the group can grow well beyond what’s comfortable for a group meeting or even the average sized house. Rather than putting a cap on how many new people the group can invite, it’s time for a conversation. What’s next?
If the group is sub-grouping to smaller groups of eight or less, discussion can continue and everybody can get their word in. Sub-grouping paves the way for new groups to form potentially. But, I would not recommend using words like: birth, split, multiply or divide. These are code for “the small group pastor is only concerned about his/her own success and doesn’t truly care about people.” While small group pastors know that’s simply not true, the reality is our group leaders and members are wise to us.
The best way to get a group to multiply/divide/birth/split is to allow the size of the group to become a problem for the group. When they “feel the pain” of an oversized group, they will be more motivated to relocate some of the sub-groups to another house. Coach them toward this decision. Don’t dictate this, but guide them into something they will feel good about down the road.
2. Groups with a Rapid Decline.
For most small group leaders, especially new group leaders or hosts, a significant decline in attendance often feels like personal failure, even though it’s not. If they started with 14 and are now sitting in a cavernous living room with four people, they assume it’s their fault – maybe they’re just not cut out for this. But, we know better than that.
These group leaders need to know 100 percent attendance is not necessarily the goal. What we’re striving for is letting God work in the group. Sometimes God can’t do what he wants when 14 people are there, but He can when it’s only four. When attendance drops, leaders need to be reassured.
But, if attendance drops and stays low, that’s whole other issue. What’s going on in the group that might be keeping people away? Are the meetings going to long? Is the leader unprepared? Is someone dominating the discussion and turning this into his/her personal support group? Not only is it time to coach the leader, it’s also time to conduct some “exit interviews” with group members who have left the group. This is not license for whining, but it could certainly give insight into what’s going on in the group.
The presence of a narcissist (read more here) or someone with a major life issue could certainly curtail the group’s effectiveness and ultimately its existence. Intervention by a group coach is essential to the group’s survival. Don’t hesitate to act.
Identifies Potential Trouble Spots
If a group fails to report attendance, it either means the group leader is not a detail-driven, task-oriented person or the group is facing trouble they’d rather not report. If the group leader is not a report-taker, then have them designate someone else in the group to submit the reports. Sometimes the leader’s spouse is more diligent with reporting. After all, opposites do attract.
If the group leader has gone silent, then the group coach needs to investigate. Maybe the group has stopped meeting. Maybe their attendance has dropped and they’re embarrassed to report (see above). If they miss one week of reporting, it’s probably no big deal. But missing multiple weeks should put the group on your hot list for follow up.
Warns of Groups Going Underground
If groups aren’t reporting their attendance and leaders aren’t calling anybody back, either the group has failed or gone underground. While we live in a free country and people can gather and study whatever they want, there are some key advantages to staying connected to a group coach and a small group system (Article: Why Do I Need a Coach?)
Failure to take attendance is certainly only one indicator that a group may have “gone rogue.” This is not the time to evoke a strict, controlling approach to group oversight. Group coaching is built on relationship (Article: Why Small Group Coaching Fails). Encourage their small group coach to work on the personal relationship. In time, this will bring the group and its leader back in the fold.
Practical Solutions to Group Attendance
Back in the day, the Sunday School superintendent left a folder in every classroom. The teacher would check off the attendance and put the folder outside of the door. Attendance was fairly easy to collect. But, collecting attendance from off-campus groups can be a little trickier.
Paper forms are probably not the solution, especially if they need to be mailed or dropped off at the church. Digital solutions are far superior. You can use a survey tool like Surveymonkey.com to send a simple survey to your group leaders asking them to list their members by name or just give a total for the week, add any prayer requests, and ask questions about group life.
A far superior solution is an online database such as churchteams.com which sends a report reminder after each group meeting. Leaders just need to click a link, fill out their report, click “save,” and then they’re done. Churchteams saves all of the data online and sends out analytics at the end of each month identifying potential trouble spots.
While there are many good reasons to take attendance in groups, there are also some negatives around record-keeping. But, that’s for another post.
Almost every small group pastor or director will agree coaching small group leaders is important. Yet, many of those pastors would also admit they don’t know how to adequately coach their small group leaders. Having tried and failed at various coaching structures many times myself, I have found three key issues in unsuccessful (and eventually successful) coaching.
Many coaching structures fail simply because no one knows what a coach is supposed to do. Is the coach an administrator or record keeper? Is the coach a trainer? Is the coach a figurehead so we can say we have a coaching structure? What do we expect our coaches to do?
If we need coaches to train leaders, then why are small group pastors still running centralized training meetings? Do we really need coaches to collect rosters and reports? Don’t we live in the 21st century? After all, churchteams.com will solve all of these administrative issues. (In an effort for full disclosure, I believe ChurchTeams is the best small groups’ database on the planet. Boyd Pelley did not pay me to say that. He did buy me an ice cream once.)
What do we need coaches to do? We need coaches to do the things we can’t do ourselves. If we had, say, five small groups, then what would we do with those leaders? We’d call them on a regular basis. We’d get together for a cup of coffee. We would personally encourage them, answer their questions, and pray for them. We would invest in the relationship. What if our coaches started there? Coaching is based on relationship. If there’s no relationship, not much coaching will take place.
A friend of mind called me a while back. He was frustrated because many of his coaches were quitting. I asked him what he was asking them to do. He wanted his volunteer coaches to hold a monthly training meeting with their leaders on the church campus. Then, I asked him if he’d ever driven in his city?
This was a major metropolitan area. So, think of requiring volunteer small group coaches to hold monthly training meetings in the middle of one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. It wasn’t working, and his coaches were quitting.
Face to face meetings are great. If you can pull them off with all of your leaders together, that’s really great. But, most people can’t. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.
Why not meet “together” with small group leaders on freeconference.com or Skype? Every day I coach small group pastors across the country over the phone or by teleconference. I’ve met few of them in person, but we connect on a weekly basis. We have a relationship, and they have seen success in growing their groups. This works with leaders locally too.
Facetime is necessary (the real, in-person version). Again, coaching is built on a relationship. But, maybe the face to face meetings are with one or two group leaders and not all of them. We can use other means to connect at other times. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a simple “Like” on Facebook or a bulk email to all of the leaders at once. The connection must be personal to grow the relationship.
Lack of Accountability
None of us likes to make people uncomfortable. Some of us avoid this discomfort to the point of not asking our coaches if they’re coaching. Then, we discover not much coaching is taking place. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Only what we supervise gets done. Now, we don’t have to come down on our coaches like a ton of bricks, but we do need to ask. Rather than asking, “Have you contacted your leaders?” we should assume the good, qualified people we recruited to coach are actually coaching. The question could go like this, “What are you learning from your leaders?” They won’t get defensive.
They might respond, “Well, I haven’t contacted any of them lately.” That’s okay. Give them a deadline, “I understand you’re busy, but connect with your leaders in the next two weeks, then I’ll check-in with you again.” Presuming the best about our coaches both honors and motivates them. Giving them accountability helps them keep their commitment to coaching and eliminates the guilt of not fulfilling their commitment.
Effective, motivated coaches need direction that is clear, reasonable, and accountable. How do I know? A good coach taught me that…as he was resigning. Do your coaches know your expectations? Do you know your expectations? Are your requirements reasonable? And, if it’s truly important, are you holding them accountable? These three simple words will transform your coaching structure.
Other Posts on Small Group Coaching: